This post discusses my favourite non-pharmacological solution to stress/fear/anxiety that I hope you’ll find useful.
Unsurprisingly, I’ve had a lot of messages from students about to sit exams who are worried about the stress getting to their head and paralysing them when the big moment comes. Somewhat more surprisingly, I’ve also had a handful of messages along the lines of 'bro how do I tell this girl I like her, I get really nervous whenever I talk to her'. I suppose being a budding influencer has its perks, in that I get to be an agony aunt too :)
Anyway, there’s a simple 2-step solution that I’ve always found helpful when faced with moments of anxiety / stress such as these.
Step 1 - Reframe stress as fear.
We’ve all heard ourselves and our friends complaining about stress or anxiety (in the generic non-clinical sense) regarding various aspects of life (eg: coursework, exams, competitions, interviews, job applications etc etc). I would venture we’ve seldom heard the word fear being used in those situations.
I don’t like the word stress. I think we should call it what it is - fear. The problem with stress is that stress has become an accepted part of daily life. Everyone is so stressed, our teachers are making us stressed, our parents are stressing us out etc etc.
When I find myself thinking the word stress, I find a way firstly to reframe it as fear. I’m not stressed about the number of exams I have, I’m scared I haven’t prepared enough. I’m not stressed about my coursework, I’m scared I’ll mess it up. You get the idea?
Why is this important? It’s important because stress is such an accepted part of life that (a) we feel it’s outside our control, and (b) we low-key compete with our friends about who’s more stressed. Being stressed becomes almost a badge of honour (much like being busy, but that’s a rant for another time).
But while stress has these negative societal issues associated with it, fear doesn’t. We tend not to low-key brag to our friends about how scared we are, and when we’re scared about something, we’re more inclined to think we can change that ourselves. Eg: if I’m scared about going up on stage to speak, I’ll actively look for strategies to combat that. But if I’m stressed about going on stage, I’ll accept that as just the way I am and not really do anything about it.
Step 2 - Reframe fear as excitement
Having reframed any form of stress/anxiety as a form of fear, we have another conundrum. How do we get over fear?
The obvious answer is to rationalise it and hope it goes away. This works for a some people in some situations, but doesn’t work for everyone. We can intellectually know that when we’re public speaking, we’re not going to die, and we can cognitively appreciate that no matter what the result of our exam, it won’t be the end of the world. But despite those very valid thoughts, the fear is still there.
So the second step of our 2-step approach to conquering fear/anxiety/stress is simply to reframe it as excitement. There’s a fun little quote that goes along the lines:
The difference between fear and excitement is about 2 inches.
This references some sort of study/questionnaire that found that when people are scared, they feel it ‘in the pit of their stomach’, but when they’re excited, they feel it ‘in their gut’ and somehow someone worked out that this difference was around 2 inches.
The more important takeaway from this is that our physiological response to fear and excitement is identical. In both cases, our heart rate increases, our breathing gets faster, our skin becomes flushed, our pupils dilate etc (via the sympathetic nervous system for all you medics/biologists).
The only difference therefore, is the story we tell ourselves about our feelings. In one case, we notice those physiological responses happening within us, and we tell ourselves ‘I’m scared / anxious / nervous / stressed’. In another case, we notice those physiological responses happening within us, and we tell ourselves ‘Wow I’m excited, this is going to be fun’.
Putting it into practice
I’ve just finished my final crop of medical school exams. They’re OSCE-style, which means we have various stations with patients and actors with various ailments that we have to diagnose. Before each station, we have an agonising 1-minute reading period where we’re standing outside waiting for the station to begin. My strategy for coping with nerves during this time was to smile widely (because smiling makes us happy, more on this another time), and to think to myself ‘this is going to be fun, I’m really looking forward to this’, ie: reframing the fear I was feeling as excitement.
I found that this tactic meant that I was a lot less stressed, no wait, scared going into each station. I was more relaxed, was able to greet the patient and examiner with a genuine smile, and perform to the best of my ability.
So next time you’re feeling that sensation of anxiety (in the non-clinical sense) or stress or fear, maybe try telling yourself with every fibre of your being that what you’re experiencing is excitement rather than fear. I’m not guaranteeing this’ll work for everyone, but it’s worked wonders for me, and I hope you’ll find at least something useful to take away from it.
And a final request - let’s all try less hard to compete with our friends about how stressed we all are. Stress isn’t a badge of honour, it’s a sign that we’re doing something wrong. If we recognise ourselves being ‘stressed’, let’s stop complaining about it. Let’s do something about it.
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